Mental Health and Social Media Panel at Stanford University (Transcription)

Note: This is a transcription of the presentation given on February 1, 2019 at Stanford University on the Mental Health and Social Media Panel/Discussion.

My name is Cori Amato Hartwig, also known as @manicpixiememequeen on Instagram. I make memes about lighthearted topics like mental illness, the patriarchy, capitalism, relationship issues, and the increasingly complicated navigation of modern society. I started the account in March of 2017. At the time, I was a junior at San Francisco State, and I had just been through a yearlong rollercoaster ride of trial-and-error psychiatric treatment in an attempt to find a medication that worked for me, and the month before starting the account, my uncle attempted suicide. Sitting in my bed sporting my new trademarked Mental Breakdown Haircut, I created a new Instagram profile called @manicpixiememequeen, partially out of boredom and partially out of my desperation to channel my personal turmoil into something that felt productive.

Originally, the account was anonymous and existed more as a “finsta” rather than a cohesive meme account, but as the account became popular and went viral, I took ownership of the account and I personally came into the character of @manicpixiememequeen as a public persona. Over time, I wove a narrative around my own mental health issues and personal life through creating memes, and I shared my content with an audience who shockingly, understood my narrative in their own personal ways.

Currently, I have over 97,000 followers on Instagram, which is absolutely wild. Clearly, I’m not the only person in the world struggling with mental health issues or having some difficulty navigating our weird and absurd world. While my brain loves to tell me that no one else really understands and then I perceive isolation, the evidence against this is in the numbers—my audience, the engagement on the posts, the hundreds of messages I receive from people across the globe telling me that they relate so much to my page and they’re grateful for the content I make.

@manicpixiememequeen subverts the mainstream Instagram narrative. On our personal Instagram accounts, we curate the perfect pictures with perfect captions, highlight our most impressive achievements, share our most FOMO-inducing adventures on our stories, post pictures with the right filter at the right angle at the right moment. We present very tactfully constructed versions of ourselves; these illusions are just as hyperbolic as the persona of @manicpixiememequeen. It’s just swung the other way. Instead of presenting myself as perfect, happy, and successful, I present myself as a chronically neurotic, anxious, and unhappy character. In turn, people relate to the point that they feel comfortable enough to openly discuss aspects of society or their life that aren't so perfect or picturesque, and they have the opportunity to connect with others on my page who are going through similar issues.

Ironically, social media was intended to connect us and then it brought about this pervading sense of isolation, toxic comparison, and competition. But as I’ve seen with my experiences running @manicpixiememequeen, there’s plenty of opportunity to use social media for authentic community and connection. I can actually witness it in the comment sections on my posts—people relating to each other and reaching out, asking questions about mental health management that they may not have had the opportunity or the confidence to ask if the post didn’t make them understood or safe enough to do so.

Last September, I was interviewed for NYLON Magazine about the benefits of mental illness memes and the effects of social media on mental health. The journalist asked me multiple times if I thought mental illness memes were actually detrimental, and I consistently wrote back saying no. If anything, using humor as a vehicle is helping generate some conversation and awareness. Then I made the comment that what actually is detrimental is silence and stigma surrounding mental illness and the widespread lack of access to comprehensive and affordable mental healthcare. Unsurprisingly, that comment was not included in the published interview.

Overall, social media can and does have effects on mental health. However, we have to consider the ways in which we’re using social media, interacting with others, and understanding the messages that we’re being presented with. As we grow increasingly digital, media literacy needs to be prioritized as something we teach people, especially young people during their formative years. We need to make sure that everyone understands that the images and content you see online is no accident. It did not come from a vacuum. Digital media is constructed, purposeful, and generally trying to sell you something that you don’t need. Most of us were thrown into the digital age without a roadmap for understanding or even the concept of media literacy, and I think if we were given more tools to understand at an earlier age, we’d see less of those negative effects that Baby Boomers love to read about, ironically, on websites constructing their own content and media.

Dear Dr. Christine Blasey Ford, Me Too.

Trigger warning: sexual assault and violence.

“But nothing actually happened to her. It was just an attempt.”

I stood in front of the television in the living room, hearing my eight-four-year-old grandfather speak these words with such impersonality. The screen blurred. The rest of his speech hit my eardrums and registered as the muffled dialogue of an audience awaiting the movie to begin at the theater. The film began.

Standing projected on the screen of my mind: an image of me, nineteen years old, commuting over an hour to my community college. Tired after an hour and a half commute and a three hour night class, I stand waiting at the Downtown Berkeley BART station. The black display in neon red letters reads: “DUBLN/PLSTN…13 MIN” and I slouch over slightly, defeated at the anticipated wait time. The commute home—including the wait, the train ride, and the car ride home—equates to approximately an hour and a half, door to door.

I decide to stand despite the weight of my schoolbooks in my backpack, insisting on standing instead of sitting next to strangers on a concrete bench that has likely been pissed on more than once. I remember reading an article somewhere about BART seats having trace amounts of feces and cocaine on every seat, no matter the efforts of the maintenance employees. I do not sit on the benches.

A man approaches me. He is asking me a question, I presume. I take a singular headphone out, prepared to give him directions, let him know which train to catch. The Downtown Berkeley stop has a characteristically disorienting way about it, as both sides are insufficiently labelled and look nearly identical in seemingly endless brick. I prepare to tell him which way to Richmond, which way to San Francisco. The San Francisco trains do not run at this time of night.

“You’re beautiful,” he says.

“Thank you.” I try to put my headphone back in. Take the compliment as a compliment and leave the compliment there. If I am nice, he cannot be angry. If I am nice, he cannot be angry. He cannot be angry. He cannot be angry, right?

“What’s your name?”

I reply with a name that is not mine. I fidget with the neckline of my T-shirt and zip up my coat to the collar to hide the nameplate necklace that reads, “CORI” in script. He makes a canned response that’s supposed to impress me about how beautiful my fake name is. I am not impressed, but rather, increasingly anxious. I immediately forget what fake name I am using, and consider the fact that I am trapped in an underground tunnel with a strange man who is definitely not asking for directions. I do not know what he is asking for, but then again, I do. I just want to go home.

A glance up at the screen, neon blood lettering, informing me that the train is nine minutes away. My options quickly whittle themselves down to, “Just be pleasant with him and make sure people can see you.” I actually walk and take a seat in between a man and a woman who are seated at opposite corners on the concrete bench. I do not consider the urine, the traces of cocaine, or human feces. I sit between the two people. This man continues speaking to me. He sits between me and the woman.

I do not remember the conversation. I recall glancing at red lettering, seeing numbers, praying that the train would appear faster than numbers dictate and that I would slip into the train-car gracefully, anonymously with the name that is not mine, and be on my way home.

The conversation was like dismantling a bomb, but time moved in the opposite fashion. When you’re dismantling a bomb, you pray for more time and less wires, but in this case I needed more wires, more routes of conversation, more lies, and infinitely less time than the lettering scrolling down the digital boards. His eyes were red like an animal photographed in the dark. Bloodshot. The lettering mimicked it. I do not remember his face, but his look is burned into my mind—a look not belonging to a person. A desecrate expression set out make graves, but not to kill.

Hold your breath. Hold your breath. Hold your breath. Hold your breath. I remember a self-defense class in high school, mandatory only for the sophomore girls. Something about the palm of your hand, their nose, a bone lodging itself into their brain, leaving them defenseless or dead—allowing for your escape. I examine the woman seated on his other side. She is on the phone, but I see that she is not actually on the phone. She is speaking into a dead receiver. She makes conversation with herself, mumbling small-talk too quickly for an actual person to reply. A defense mechanism I am all too familiar with. Talk to yourself on the phone and pretend it’s another—pretend it’s a man. The presence of man, imaginary or not, is still more powerful than the actual presence of a woman. They do not teach these things in self-defense classes.

The train is two minutes away, which means it is perfectly reasonable to stand up and wait for the train at the designated yellow platforms, according to BART etiquette. I am relieved. The train is approaching—safety is coming.

“Where are you going?” he asks as the sound of the Dublin/Pleasanton train echoes through the tunnel. I am familiar with the echo and anticipate its arrival in approximately ninety seconds.

“Castro Valley,” I lie about my stop.

“No.” He mutters a name that is not mine, whatever fake name I had given before.

He grabs me. I feel his nails in my forearm through my long-sleeve shirt and coat. He moves his grip down to my wrist and presses tightly, beginning to dislocate my wrist. I hear the train approaching and assume someone will notice this man grabbing me—but people begin boarding the train without questioning him. I begin to yell.

At this point—the memory becomes a dream—a nightmare. A nightmare in which you yell and yell and yell and no one can hear you. It is hazy and foggy and I can only see open doors of the train leading back to safety and my home. I turn back to the man, faceless in memory, and continue yelling and dragging his large body in the threshold of the train-car as he tried to drag me out. No one does anything, despite my yelling, my clear physical struggle of my post-anorexia body pulling a large grown man away from me. I cross the threshold, his grip still firm, higher and tighter around my arm as he attempts to pull me back into the the station. The sound for the door closing dings and he jumps in, solidifying my fears, and I immediately gain a sense of absolute terror that drives me to push him on the chest using my opposite forearm back into the station while keeping most of my body inside the train-car. The door closes on my palm. I slip it out quickly and he is trapped behind the glass and metal of the car. I take a seat and no one asks any questions, despite the many seated passengers who witnessed me shoving a strange man off of me with all of my might while yelling for help.

Because “nothing actually happened,” I never reported it. Even though he had approached me, made advances at me without consent, grabbed me without consent, and began to use physical violence—I considered my experience so much less serious than what other people had gone through, so I told absolutely no one. And then I “forgot about it.”

What I thought that I had forgotten about turned into a period of agoraphobia that sent me to a psychiatrist’s office for almost two years. It turned into skipping seventeen out of thirty-two lectures in a semester for a single class. It turned into me contemplating how I could use a vintage metal lunchbox and a Hydroflask as a self-defense weapon if necessary. It turned into not listening to music so I could stay aware of my surroundings but keeping my headphones in my ears to avoid unwanted advances. It turned into silence. A dark, brewing silence—tea left to steep for too long on the counter. Bitter and cold. Silence.

“But nothing actually happened to her. It was just an attempt.”

I transported back into the moment with my grandfather. Suddenly something burst within me. That man’s face was still fuzzy but the pressure on my wrist was palpable. I yelled. I screamed an experience to my grandfather that I had never uttered before—an event that was so extremely repressed and blurred into the edges of my psyche that I did not even believe that it belonged to me. He asked why I never reported it. I said I was afraid. I ran up the stairs.

I did not feel valid enough in that attempted violence to report it, so I never did. And now, as I sit with these testimonies fresh in my mind, and the numerous allegations now coming out against brett kavanaugh, I wonder if that blurred face of a man had gone from grabbing me at that Downtown Berkeley BART station and had gone to some other place to grab another girl—

And then it wasn’t an attempt anymore.

Just because “nothing actually happened” doesn’t mean that the intention of violence was not there. And then, there was probably a future manifestation of violence that met some sick and twisted patriarchal criteria of validity.

And statistically, that girl still wouldn’t have reported it.

Without Dr. Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony today, this memory would have remained repressed in the depths of my subconscious forever, unless something even more threatening had brought it out. Without Dr. Blasey, I do not think I would have felt valid in my own experience with intended sexual violence. Without Dr. Blasey, we would probably have a second supreme court justice who does not stand for justice at all. (I’m looking at you, clarence thomas).

I am jealous of the men who can comfortably fall asleep on public transportation. I am jealous of the men who do not have to look into compact mirrors or selfie cameras or car mirrors or reflections or shadows to make sure no one is following them home. I am jealous of the men who can listen to music instead of a creeping, threatening silence to make sure that no one is breathing down their neck or making kissy noises or audibly obscene gestures at them. I am jealous of the men who can walk down a street in basic clothes and not have words thrown at them like bullets from a sawed-off shotgun. I am jealous of the men who consider safety a given.

If the unhonorable brett kavanaugh gets his seat on the supreme court, you can catch me and every other single woman who has been giving fake names chaining themselves to white house fences like Alice Paul in 1917, because after one-hundred-one years, we’re still in gendered purgatory.

Fordham University Mental Health Speak Out Speech (Transcription)

Note: This is a transcription of the speech given on September 20, 2018 at Fordham University.

Thanks for coming out tonight to Fordham’s Psych Club’s first ever Mental Health Speak Out and Open Mic Night. I’m super stoked to be here and help be apart of providing a safe space for people to talk about their mental health experiences, raise awareness, and break down stigma.

My name is Cori Amato Hartwig and I’m a writer, musician, editor, and mental health activist. Along with my impressive resume of being an unemployed recent grad—I run the weirdly viral mental illness meme account on Instagram, @manicpixiememequeen. I started the account started in March 2017 after I had the worst manic episode of my life to date, and I was overwhelmed pretty much every aspect of my life. So naturally, I started making memes and posting them for strangers on the Internet to see. Originally, it was just a place for me to shout my feelings and experiences into a void, but the account started gaining traction, and then I realized: “Holy shit. Other people get this too. It’s not just me.” And now the account has 70,000 followers or something absurd. My previously perceived sense of isolation because of my mental illness has completely dissolved in this community built around finding solace in humor and through sharing my experiences openly.

Recently, I was featured in NYLON Magazine; they wanted to interview me about mental illness memes and their potential benefits and pitfalls, and to me, I really could not name a pitfall. The interviewer asked me if memes are “normalizing the negative behaviors and mindsets that come along with having a mental illness,” and I told her that memes are not the problem. Silence is the problem. Silence is not strength and it never will be. Silence is poison. We need to normalize mental illness and the experiences that come along with it. We also need to normalize treatment for mental illness.

Of course, that part of the interview was not published—along with comments I made about the accessibility of treatment and healthcare for mental illnesses.

The day that I sent that interview off to NYLON, Lizz contacted me on Instagram asking if I would come to Fordham and be a guest speaker. Honestly, I am totally honored that she’d even extend the invitation. Then I realized that this is so much bigger than just me making memes about mental illness. It’s not about the memes at all, actually. It’s simply about having a public platform—whether that be comedy, writing, music, or art—it’s about having a public platform to safely express and share experiences and create a dialogue, because the mainstream media isn’t doing it. So it falls on us to start talking and keep talking.

We’re all here tonight despite the stigma, despite the guilt, despite the lack of dialogue, despite the pain—despite it all, we are here tonight.

Unfortunately, there are people who are not here tonight.

In January, I was in the hospital at risk for a cardiac arrest due to anorexia. Luckily I had access to professional care, even though my parents had to pay up the ass in copays and medical bills in order to save my life. Without them and without treatment, I would be dead, and I would not be here tonight.

A month after my own brush with death relating to mental illness, my uncle killed himself. It was not his first attempt, and Keith was not my first uncle lost to suicide. In June 2014, right after I graduated high school, my uncle Todd took his own life.

My family is incredibly open and we’re all clearly afflicted by mental health issues to some degree or another. We have bipolar, depression, anxiety, phobias, obsessive-compulsive disorder, addiction, eating disorders. We’re like the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual in the form of a family. Growing up in this large, vocal, and mentally ill family helped me realize where the shame part of mental illness fits in. The answer is it doesn’t. I’ve excluded shame from my personal narrative; I refuse to carry it. I have enough shit to carry otherwise. But we’re subjected to silence so frequently that we start thinking that we should be hiding and that we should be quiet and that we should carry shame.

So tonight, we’re going to do the opposite of that. We are not going hide, we’re not going to be quiet, and tonight—there is no shame in this room. We’re going to leave the stigma at the door, and we’re going to have the most fun and supportive session of group therapy that you’ve ever been to.

If you feel safe and able to do so, share your story, share your experiences, share your art. Tonight this space is ours, and I want to make sure that everyone feels comfortable and no one feels pressured. So, whether you are here because you want to share or if you’re here just to listen, all I ask is that we keep this space respectful, unassuming, compassionate, and supportive. I also want to make sure that what is shared here is respected with the confidentiality that everyone deserves.

No, I Don’t Want to Go to Yoga: The Problem with Mental Health Advice from Neurotypicals

My mother, a neurotypical, swears by her weekly yin yoga classes to preserve her sanity. She drives to the yoga studio, a cute remodeled two-story home on a sweet little side-street downtown, and climbs a flight of stairs to an airy room with large wood-paneled floors and flow-y white curtains that Stevie Nicks would alter into a dress during the Belladonna era. She comes home weekly smiling, claiming she feels like she “just got a massage—so relaxed!” 

After months of constant “Try Yoga” propaganda from my mother and my brother (another neurotypical who is a proponent of daily meditation), I acquiesced and joined my mother for an hour long yoga class. 

I arrived, sat down in a circle with a bunch of white people who chanted words in a language I was willing to bet they could not identify, and realized–I am having a panic attack at yoga. 

Attending yoga felt like going to the dentist. I stared up at the blank white ceiling, unsure of what to do with my eyes (I become anxious when I close them in public), and I imagined the ceiling cracking from the ceiling, falling on me, thus killing me. A man with a bun strolled around the circle, playing a cover of an Ed Sheeran song on an acoustic guitar. I fantasized about an unfortunate, untimely death throughout the class. 

I couldn’t do some of the moves. Uncoordinated and in a panic, I squinted at the teacher in the middle of the circle, moving gracefully, and too quickly for me to imitate. I knew that the poses would be difficult for me—it was my first class after all—but once the teacher came up to me and touched me without permission (a total of three times), I realized once and for all that maybe yoga wasn’t for me. I couldn’t stop thinking about the state of my body, my fat legs, my unshaved armpits. I couldn’t close my eyes. The teacher put an aromatherapy sack of some bead-shaped foam on my eyes. Claustrophobic, I fantasized about my death again. 

I struggle with a multitude of mental illnesses, including but not limited to bipolar disorder ii, generalized anxiety disorder, anorexia, and borderline personality disorder. Sometimes I feel like I am the personification of The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. I have gone to therapy for over half a decade with three separate therapists, tried EMDR therapy for my phobias and anxiety, tried SSRIs and mood-stabilizers and beta-blockers and benzodiazepines, received treatment from a specialized hospital for eating disorders (where I experienced a gross level of misogyny and stigma in the professional medical field firsthand)–and I am still mentally ill.

I don’t expect to be cured. Like any chronic illness, it’s about management and coping. 

Professional mental health treatment feels like a shot in the dark. The patient—basically a guinea pig—tries nearly any method suggested by their medical professional to feel better, frequently resulting in the patient feeling disappointed and exhausted from the lengthy trial-and-error process. The management of any chronic illness is a long journey. It is difficult to feel better. Sometimes I wake up and I’m not in the mood to interact with other people or even go outside—let alone go to a yoga class (where I’m touched without consent and forced to close my eyes and feel insecure about my body, its shape, and its movements).

The problem does not lie in the suggestion of yoga itself. It lies in the way that yoga, meditation, and other zen-like activities are suggested by neurotypicals who do not acknowledge other options for people who struggle with mental health, like therapy or psychiatry. These forms of mental illness management are rarely suggested by people who do not personally experience mental illnesses themselves. 

Why don’t neurotypicals recommend therapy or psychiatry, but recommend yoga, mediation, exercise, fermented foods, taking allergy tests, cutting out gluten, cutting out diary, cutting out red meat, etc., etc.? Why don’t we talk about receiving professional help for mental illness? 

When someone suggests yoga, meditation, changing diet, etc., it reduces the mental illness into a brief mood of sadness, a fleeting feeling of worry, a moment of insecurity. My mental illnesses are more than just feeling “unhappy” or “worried” or “insecure.” They’re overwhelming, chronic, systemic states of being—often with mental, emotional, and physical symptoms—that make me feel like I’m actually dying. Chest tightening, shortness of breath, heaviness of limbs, fatigue, insomnia, dizziness, muscle tension and discomfort, nausea, diarrhea, vomiting, loss of appetite—these symptoms have to be managed, and it takes much more than yoga classes to do so. 

Maybe we’re talking about yoga because we’re uncomfortable talking about mental health. But our discomfort is destructive. Because we’re not talking about professional help and/or medical help, many people feel ashamed to receive it or even ask for it. Some people don’t even know their options, as so many healthcare programs in the United States do not cover therapy, psychiatry, etc. 

This past winter, I looked for months to find a program to get into for my eating disorder. I looked throughout the entire Bay Area (an extremely populated and relatively wealthy area) for outpatient programs, medical specialists, nutritionists, specialized therapists, and specialized psychiatrists. Programs were either not covered by insurance, or there were waitlists, or I had to travel over an hour to get to the program. Eventually, I gave up, and a few weeks after giving up on the search, my heart rate hit a dangerously low level that required medical monitoring, which opened the door for me to receive help. 

But does it have to get to a life-threatening level before help becomes accessible? 

Neurotypicals—if you want to be an ally and a mental health advocate, stop talking about yoga, meditation, and mindfulness. As positive as your intentions are, it’s more than yoga. Start talking about professional and medical help, accessibility, affordability, and better healthcare. Start having conversations that make some people uncomfortable. Vote for government officials that support more comprehensive, more affordable, and more accessible healthcare that encompasses mental health. It’s more than yoga. Start advocating.